Kuffner Arête, Mont Maudit 4465m

Kuffner Arête. (700m D, 4465m)

The Kuffner is a true classic of the Mont Blanc range and has been in my sights for a while now. This time it looked like everything was falling in to place and we would have some clear days in this wet alpine summer.

 

I have climbed with Nick and Tim before but they had never met. After introductions at the midi we all headed across the Panoramic towards Italy to start the 2 hour approach to the Fourche bivi. The location of the bivi has to be one of the best in the range. Perched high on a ridge overlooking the enormous south face of Mont Blanc and the Brenva glacier. We arrived at the bivi just after midday and settled in with card games and three middle aged Germans who were there for the Brenva Spur. Looking like we were going to have the hut to ourselves we got comfortable. Before long more and more people started arriving and by 7/8pm there was 16 people in this 12 person bivi. There was bodies and gear everywhere with people on the bench and table. I had a terrible night’s sleep only managing a couple of hours. The first people started to get up about 2am and then you could not escape the sound of crampons clinking and quiet chatting for the next two hours before we got out of our blankets and were heading out ourselves.

The Kuffner follows the obvious ridge up towards Mont Maudit and is generally a 50/60 degree snow slope with a few mixed and rock moves thrown in for good measure. Starting in the dark it was easy to route find as there was a good track and a dozen head torches ahead of us. It`s always a shock to the system when you wake up and straight away you are on an exposed ridge, it takes some time to rub the sleep out of my eyes.

We were making good progress, reaching the Pointe Androsasse around sunrise. It was at this point that I started to feel unwell. I haven`t really suffered with altitude before but this time it wasn`t going down well. I didn`t feel confident in my abilities and felt sick despite eating and drinking regularly. I didn`t want to slow the group down so with regular short breaks for more food and water we moved together until we reached the top of the ridge after 5 hours of climbing. As the morning unfolded at no point did I feel like my condition was improving. Not wanting to be a burden on the guys I pushed for the summit of Maudit hoping that I might feel better with a long rest and more food. This did not happen. Tim and Nick had not been up Mont Blanc before and they didn`t feel half as bad as me so they were keen to summit. About 50m below the summit of Maudit I threw in the towel, I was beat. I offered to descent on my own. I unclipped from the rope and started the 150m down climb down the north face of Maudit heading towards the Col where I roped up and descended with the Brenva guys from the Fourche, who took good care of me with tea and chocolate. I still felt bad the whole way down reaching the midi just before 2pm after topping out of the Kuffner 5 hours earlier. It was very hot, I had no water and I was tired. What a day. Hearing from Tim after I had gotten down, they had managed to reach the summit within a few hours of leaving me, and despite a cloudy summit shot they were heading back down via the three monts route. They were also tired but were happy that they had both finally made it up to the roof of Europe.

Col du Plan, Aiguille du Midi NF

Fifteen months after making my first off-piste turns I find myself clipping my skis on looking down a windy, powder covered arête with a Midi north face line in my sights.

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Teaming up with Dave Searle we were both excited and psyched to be stepping up our game and taking on the true steep skiing playground that is the Aiguille du Midi north face. Skiing straight out of the tunnel and down the arête was a first for me and it really filled me with confidence as we made our way along the midi-plan traverse towards the top of the Tournier spur entrance to Col du Plan. The wind was howling but the snow still looked good. We saw four tracks going down this entrance. It was nice to let someone else open this highly exposed line. Here we go…

Even after the arête warm up my first turns did take some building up to but once they came and went I was committed and ready to enjoy some steep powder. After the short traverse to the Col du Plan main face we encountered a brief icy section. A few instructional words from Dave I was over the difficulties and we had a couple hundred meters of cold steep powder before we hit the rappel. Waiting for the first group to rap we saw Bird coming in direct from the Col. It looked icy and we were glad we came in from higher up. He ripped it up, making huge turns down the face until he arrived with us and asked if he could tag along on our rope as his partners had abandoned him. Not wanting to leave him stranded, we said yes! After the initial two raps there was a short sideslip before the last small rap with skis on and we were out of the danger. I could see the mid station. Some more steep turns then it was smooth powder all the way back. Arriving at the plan with Dave and Bird it was high fives all round. It still has not sunk in that I had skied the North Face. Earlier on in the season I jokingly said to Tom that I would be ripping it up in my second season skiing but I didn’t say it with much confidence and definitely didn’t dream it would become reality.

 

I felt content with my accomplishment and headed back down as those boys went back up with the Eugster in their eyes. Meeting up with them after they ended up skiing a powdery Rond with big turns all the way down. What a day. Thanks to Dave and Bird for the company and ensuring we all made it home.

Gervasutti Couloir 5.2 E2

When I bought my first pair of skis last year I didn’t think I would be jump turning myself down one of the classic Chamonix ‘Steep’ lines 14 months later.

The Tour Ronde has been my favourite mountain in Chamonix ever since I first saw it while crossing the Panoramic 3 summers ago. Last summer I achieved my main climbing goal, which was its iconic North Face. Completing this route left me wanting more from this beautiful, stand-alone summit situated in the heart of the Mont Blanc Massif. Seeing people like Ben Briggs and Tom Grant ski the north face I knew it was too big a step for me to undertake so I had to look for other options.

The Gervasutti Couloir is a west facing 200m line that has a relatively constant gradient of 50’. My first 5.2. I had been hearing reports of people skiing it and getting good conditions despite the severe lack of snow we are having here in Chamonix. Skiing a lot recently with James Sleigh he was my first choice of partner for this classic steep descent. Stopping at his house at 7:30 he was not feeling good and decided he wasn’t going to come. Whether you call it stupidity, commitment or a just a massive love of skiing I headed into the mountains alone, aware of the risks and seeking the rewards.

My first point of call on the day was the Breche du Carabinier, after seeing Dave Searles solo mission there last week I thought it could be a good warm up for something steep. Getting my topo reading all wrong I started up the Couloir Aiguillette which is just lookers left of the Carabinier. Getting about 200m up the couloir the strong spring sun started to warm up the near by rocks and the mountain started to come alive. Being alone with no helmet I quickly put my skis on and enjoyed the steep spring snow descent. Back on the flat I started skinning again, heading below the Tour Ronde north face towards the Aiguille d’Entreve to traverse its east ridge. Getting around the corner I could see a group of people going up the Tour Ronde east face and there was a good boot pack in. Deciding quickly in my head I started moving towards the face, soon enough I was on the summit again looking down the Gervasutti, It looked not just ski able but pretty good considering.

Traversing under the north face of the summit on black ice was a little daunting and seeing a couple of British climbers who just came up the north face looking exhausted was a strong reminder of my climb last summer. After a little chat and them telling me ‘Your Nuts’ I started the 10/15m down climb through the rocks to find somewhere to put my skis on.

With my skis on I felt a little safer and started to realise what I was about to do. The first turn took about 5 attempts; Building up the strength and courage on steep exposed lines is different for everyone. For me turning from right to left is strongest but I had no option here. Making that first turn was a big moment for me, my tiny little 82mm Dynastars gripping the very firm upper section and reassuring me that I was not going to slide down this couloir upside down. A few more turns came and went before I came into a rocky section that had been side slipped before. Taking the axe back out for a little safety I was clear of the obvious rocks and had over 150m of nice spring chalk to enjoy. I put one headphone back in, turned up Sultans of Swing and linked some of the best fast jump turns I have ever made and was over the schrund in what felt like a few minutes. Looking back up at the couloir with my body still in one piece I let out a huge roar, I had done it and I loved every minute of it. The smile on my face was still as big as ever as I made my way down the horribly hard and wind blown valley blanche to the James bond track.

This was the realisation of a dream that has only been around for a year. A massive stepping-stone in knowing what I can ski and the process I can now go about skiing these iconic steep lines.

Bring on the next one…